Usually a headline act is nowhere to be seen before they appear on stage in a flash of light. They’re presumably backstage, drinking free beer and being cool. When a headline act does appear before their moment, it feels like they are stamping their authority on the show. Yeah, it almost seems like they’re saying, the support act may be good but remember me. It’s all about me. So when Hollie McNish takes to the stage to introduce her hand-picked support act Alice McCullough you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s bolshy territorialism. Except that it doesn’t seem like this. At all. It seems like McNish is bubbling over with excitement at the prospect of playing the sold-out McHugh’s basement, which someone has told her is near a red light district and she genuinely wants to know if this is true. It feels like she’s formed a friendship with her support act [“she makes good tea” McNish tells us] and wants to tell us that yeah, this other person might be on first, but we’d still better listen.
On this night of performance poetry, rhyme isn’t exactly king in Alice McCullough’s set but it’s a prince, sometimes ruling, sometimes quietly watching subjects from a hidden vantage point. Donning her wordy mantle, pictures are painted. Not all as vivid as that of the bodhran draped in a sash and a rosary laid across a Lambeg drum – from ‘Belfast, You’re Melting My Head (Only Slaggin’) – but to leave an audience with even one image burned into their memory is no mean feat. When McCullough says that one of her poems began as an apology to her Dad and then “sort of turned into a love poem for Van Morrison” it’s not a surprise as most of her pieces are changing beasts: from eating disorders to beauty in the eye of the beholder, from childhood bullies to hope. Everything in this set is about love.
When someone starts their set by telling the audience they Googled “how poets fill an hour” – something, we’ll be honest, we were all wondering. No music? No interpretive dance? – you know you’re going to warm to them. They have the same fears as you. Perhaps they’re even… a real person? Don’t be too fooled though, Hollie McNish has gigged before. This is the final night of this particular UK and Ireland tour and she’s worked heavily with Kate Tempest, a Mercury Music Prize nominee. She doesn’t have what’s considered to be a dramatic, powerful voice though. If you closed your eyes she could be a high-voiced teenager from innercity London, albeit a very politically aware and articulate one. And it’s her articulation that makes people stand up and take notice. Not always the positive kind of notice either, as she admits she probably gets more hate mail than other poets and kicks off her set with her five most hated poems according to the aforementioned mail and Google analytics. If they hate it, chances that the ticketed audience will love it are extremely high as her frenetic but never panicked delivery takes us through a world in which teenagers stab each other because they were raised with racist and homophobic misapprehensions (‘Hate’] and an amusing parallel universe in which media males gyrate in thongs instead of being praised for their talent, while greying female news anchors talk down to their toyboy eye candy co-presenters (‘For One Day’).
Motherhood really brought McNish into the public eye though. The new perspectives it offers to the mother, and the perspectives the rest of society have towards her make up much of the rest of McNish’s show. Babies are in the audience, because why shouldn’t they be? Sometimes they cry, because that’s what they do. Sometimes they want fed, because that’s part of growing and at one of Hollie’s gigs they can be without apologetic bar staff asking if you can please take it into the toilets. ‘Embarrassed’ is about this very thing, with the aim of breaking down the embarrassment and pressure to hide many mothers feel and we all feel empowered by it, be we mothers, fathers or completely child-free.
In the end the hour is filled almost effortlessly, with no hint of needing an interpretive dance interlude. Explaining just why Flo Rida wants us to blow his whistle and why on Earth he thought describing it as a whistle would be attractive puts the audience in fits of giggles that are never quite recovered from. And most of all, she wants us to remember that “Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s ‘Push It’ wasn’t as funny on the birthing CD” as she thought it would be. Duly noted.